New York is the city that never sleeps. But this renowned insomnia would not be possible without the more than 200,000 men and women who work the nightshift – the fry cooks and coffee jockeys, train conductors and cab hacks, cops, docs, and fishmongers selling cod by the crate. Inverting the natural rhythm of life, they keep the city running as it slows but never stops.

In our book, NIGHTSHIFT NYC, we tell the stories of New York City nightshift workers. This ethnography of the night investigates familiar sites, such as diners, delis and taxis, as well as some unexpected corners of the night, such as a walking tour of homelessness in Manhattan and a fishing boat out of Brooklyn. We show how the nightshift is more than simply out of phase, it is another social space altogether, highly structured, inherently subversive, and shot through with inequalities of power. NIGHTSHIFT NYC presents the narratives of those who sleep too little and work too much, revealing the soul of a city hidden in the graveyard shift of 24-hour commerce when the sun goes down and the lights come up.

But there is more to the story than found its way into the pages of the book. Here you'll find more stories of the night in New York City and around the country. And we hope you will add your own stories and comments in the months to come. Stay tuned and check back often...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

When Things Go Wrong

On September 12, 1963, on the nightshift (9:30 p.m.), an A-4D jet fighter crashed into the Coney Island Rail Yards. The massive jet missed hitting any trains in the yard. The pilot, too, was unharmed, bailing out and landing in a Brooklyn parking lot on Avenue U.

Accidents like this, in the air and on the ground, seem to happen more often after dark.

In 1918, what many still call the city’s worst subway accident occurred on November 1. The motormen were on strike. A dispatcher filled in. Moments before 7 p.m., the inexperienced dispatcher driving the train lost control while entering a tunnel. Almost one hundred rush-hour commuters lost their lives. Two hundred more were injured.

Nearly eighty years later, on June 5, 1995, a similar accident occurred in Brooklyn. A Manhattan-bound M train stopped on the Williamsburg Bridge. Along came a Manhattan-bound J train. At 6:12 a.m., the J train ran into the M train. The motorman of the J train, on the last run of his nightshift, was killed. Fifty passengers were injured.

In Chapter 12, “Everyone Is The Same Down There,” we profile George, a nightshift MTA conductor. He talks about the importance of having a live conductor on the train, especially when something goes wrong. And things do go wrong. Especially on the nightshift.

Why? Well, one answer, which I’ve written about in other posts, relates to circadian rhythms. The body needs roughly twelve hours of light and twelve hours of dark, and it’s difficult to get that on the nightshift. But there are other, equally important reasons. There’s the issue of fatigue, which can happen even during the daylight hours. There’s the issue of shift changes, and the information that gets lost between shifts. There’s the issue of the lack of management personnel on the nightshift, so that those with the authority and expertise to solve problems are often not there. And there’s also the issue of a weak safety culture, where it’s frowned upon to report small problems or follow basic safety procedures.

So what caused U.S. Navy pilot Lieutenant William A. Gerrety to crash his jet fighter into the Coney Island Yards back in 1963? Circadian rhythms? Fatigue? Information lost during shift change? Lack of management personnel? Weak safety culture? All of the above?

Turns out, none of the above. The jet was struck by lightning.

No comments: